Thursday 15 March 2012

Plants and politics

"Plant life of the Pacific world" is the latest exhibition from London-based, Portgual-raised artist Carlos Noronha Feio. The works are collages, which assemble plant and flower forms from images of nuclear explosions.

Carlos Noronha Feio. Image by courtesy of Carlos Noronha Feio

Most of the collages have been classified according to E.D. Merrill's book of the same name, published in 1945 for military use. Carlos talked to us about the exhibition, how it was produced, and some of its underlying themes.

How did you come across the original Plant life of the Pacific world, and what led you to consider the book as a subject for your exhibition?

The idea for the collages originated from a previous work Trying to reach point zero In it, I create parallels between the technological and the natural. Aesthetically, I do that by showing you a tree and a tree in neon... except that the neon one is actually a nuclear explosion.

My work tends to develop in actions: performances as sketches. Several of my series are developments from previous works, as these collages exemplify. They derive from Trying to reach point zero which in itself is a reworking of Neolithic fields.



Neolitic Fields, 2010


The first collages came naturally, they are the more "organichy". I say organichy and not organic looking, because there are fundamental differences in the expressions; they are nuances. One derives from a construct, the other from resemblance. After the first few collages, I knew that it was working. I knew I wanted to take the dichotomy of technology, being represented by its most fearful object, and the natural, to the next level. Working with preciousness and beauty, trying to create little moral conflicts within the viewer.

Plant life of the Pacific world is a great title! E. D. Merrill choose it beautifully. It is such a contradiction when you consider the motives for its publication. It was a book published by the Infantry Press, in the Fighting Forces series... a book for the American soldiers going to war in the Pacific ocean. It has a special flavour, published in 1945: the year of the first nuclear test, and therefore the beginning of the era of the nuclear cloud.

Nowadays, we are so used to the idea of nuclear power that we don't bother to think too much about it. After all, we are always being assured that it provides safe, reliable cheap energy; that it can, supposedly solve all the energy problems in the world. There's something else that we also hear: that nuclear weapons are only for deterrence. We don't hear the acronym M.A.D. anymore. We only hear about the benefits, how they keep us safe. "Assured destruction" was rebranded as "deterrent". It has a much nicer sonority, a much nicer nuance.

The UN permanent Security Council members, the big 5, are the ones that developed the technology before being branded as rogue or menaces to world peace. This helps to maintain the status quo. The ones with the most deadly weapons are the ones that have the final say in security matters. I personally think that nuclear technology has a place in the world, a civil one, but I do not mean in powerplants. We were once again reminded last year with Japan's accident that we can not plan for every single eventuality, and that until we develop nuclear power without the risks that it still entails. We should consider recent history and take the plans back to the drawing board.

It feels that the world, or individuals in it, were eager to put nuclear plants out there without finalising their development. Nuclear plants should never have been put to work without a proper nuclear waste neutralisation programme. There are amazing new medical technologies that come from nuclear, for example.

Great thinkers, such as Paul Virillio and Boris Groys, touch on these issues. Groys, for example, speaks about the proliferation of museums and the ever-increasing need to collect, as a direct result of this amazing leap in technology, and what it implies. A constant feel of a possible Armageddon. A feel that becomes more inane in our behaviours, becoming more abstract, more subconscious.

So, Plant life of the Pacific world was a great match for the work. From the moment I started searching for a botany book from 1945, there wasn't another option that had a title, with all the readings we can make of it, that reflected in a better way, the work I was producing. It was perfect. It was cute, it was meaningful and it gave me an illustrated guide from where to create organic-looking instead of just "organichy" images.


Image provided by courtesy of Carlos Noronha Feio

From Plant life of the Pacific world



As a multimedia artist, what decisions and thoughts did you go through in terms of the media you used for this exhibition, and how the works were constructed?

The choice of materials in my work is quite instinctive. I set my precedent at the beginning. I tend to take the series to complete fruition within the set of materials and techniques that derive from instinct and experimentation: the original set of rules.

I did a performance at TPTP where, at the opening of the show, the gallery was empty. Slowly people, artists, started to bring works that they themselves were not happy with. This lasted for one-and-a-half weeks. I then did a 24-hour performance where I tried to give those works a blank slate, where I tried to see possible new starting points that could lead to a new development... simple interventions... like to un-stretch a canvas, turn it around, stretch it again and prime it. Leaving the original work to the back, as a reminder that the piece has a history, that the history cannot be ignored, but that you should give it a chance to restart and become a better work.

After 24 hours, the original artists were able to collect their works and decide if they wanted the object to be a collaborative piece between them and myself, or if they wanted to continue working in it, leaving my trace as nothing more than that of a technician preparing the surface to be worked on.

With this exhibition, I wanted the work to reflect the dichotomy of nature and technology, the natural and the constructed. I wanted to play with the notions of what we call manual and digital. I liked the idea that visually, when you are browsing the show, you hardly notice which works are which. I really like that! You tend to concentrate on their beauty, leaving all the formal decisions to become more subliminal, less important. The construct, the process, becomes the blind spot to the aesthetic, helping to emphasise the dialogue between the conservative hang of the show and the beauty within each image.


The blurb for your exhibition refers to the current debates around online content and piracy. How important is "free culture" to you as an artist?

There is piracy, and there is piracy.

I believe that people should get paid for their work. I am not opposed, though, to treating images and texts that can be found on the net as source material to produce new works. That is a totally different issue to downloading films or series or software.

However, free culture does not only mean online. It also relates to getting better-funded museums. It also means investing into agencies such as The Live Art Development Agency, and spaces such as INIVA. It means having these spaces and structures spread as agents throughout the country, to the point that it becomes natural to walk into a museum. To the point that these places are not simply used as altarpieces in a city, but are more integral parts of the quotidian. They could be a stall in the market, such as the Fordham Gallery, or a shack in an alley, such as the project that I co-run, The Mews Project Space. It is important that they connect to their social environment, and are part of a network as to allow for the free movement of works and knowledge, so that new information is always at reach with a little stroll down the street. Culture and creativity, not economics, can take centre stage.

I was always fascinated by The Wanderers, a Russian movement from the end of the 1800's that would show their work in villages – outside, in carts. Wherever they had the chance and the wall space, just so that they could help to improve cultural awareness. Museums make the quotidian objects into something more, because of the invisible care that is placed onto them, the set of circumstances that allows for an object to be preserved and presented outside it's natural setting. This is, by the way, from Boris Groys' book, Art Power.

On the Internet, we really have to define what "free culture" is. Is it the fact that we want to have access to everything for free? The way that the markets are structured now do not allow that to happen without the people that canalise what we are here defining as culture, it's producers, it's cultural agents, suffering. It is a mistake to think that culture does not need nurturing. It does.

The Internet is obviously a place with phenomenal possibilities, as long as we keep it free - of opinion and information. Kenneth Goldsmith just published a book, Uncreative writing, where he defends that you can create new original material by using material from others, a sort of copy-paste of plagiarised material that, as a collage, creates an original work.


You are a highly prolific artist. Does access to an increasing range of media and technology help to with your theoretical and/or practical processes?

The less restrictions there are, the more material there is to work with.

The other side is that you are always going to be producing in something of an anguished state: there is always more, always more ideas that jump to your mind and are perfectly viable works to be researched and developed. There is just not enough time to develop it all.


You seem to balance your Portuguese and UK "selves" remarkably well, with exhibitions regularly taking place in both. How do you manage this co-existence, and do you intend to explore this "twin-country" identity in terms of your art in the future?

I am glad you ask this question because it is an important one. It is true that I try to balance the UK and Portugal, as I have strong connections to both places. My family lives in Portugal and I was born in Lisbon, living there until I was 18 years old when I moved to London. However, I may soon be spending my time between Afghanistan and Russia. Both places fascinate me.

I was lucky that I found great people to work with in Portugal, as well as my gallery there, Galeria Nuno Centeno. In London, I work with IMT Gallery and at The Mews Project Space, as well as doing a PhD at the Royal College of Art, all with people that influence me, that allow me to create roots here and there. Even when the work, as in my rugs, seems to be speaking about generalised cultures, it is calling attention to the similarities (or not) of the individuals that inhabit a geopolitical area.

I don't believe anyone should be looked at and interpreted because of their geopolitical origin. People need to be active, not passive, even if it might cause instability... even if it goes against the "culture" they inhabit. The act of questioning on behalf of a fairer, improved quality of life for everyone, is something I deeply care about.

I am white, blonde, blue-eyed, Portuguese, and British-based... a cultural agent working within a commercial art market. That does not mean that my concerns, my inclinations, do not surpass my own geopolitical space. After all, I can be working in Nigeria via the Internet as I will be doing next month, and still be working from home.


Further information on Carlos Noronha Feio, and a showcase of his work, is available on his website.
"Plant life of the Pacific world" is showing at the IMT Gallery, London, 02/03/12 – 08/04/12.

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